At the end of one of the most dastardly weekends ever for Ohio football, rookie cornerback DJ Turner smoothed out his solid blue jacket with the block M before leaving the Bengals locker room at Paycor Stadium Sunday when someone told him that it looked like the real thing.
A Michigan letter jacket.
Turner managed a smile and nod on a day the second-round pick from Ann Arbor proved again he's the real thing. He couldn't stave off a 16-10 loss to the Steelers that severely damaged the Bengals' playoff hopes, but he was around the ball enough to help hold the Steelers to under 20 points for the sixth time this season and give Bengals backup quarterback Jake Browning a shot to win his first NFL start.
With No. 1 cover cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt iced with a quad injury, Turner played all the snaps with a career-high 71 plays and saved two precious touchdowns in the low-scoring rain with his two passes defensed, and added a fumble recovery and five tackles. Vet Chidobe Awuzie also answered with a season-high 69 snaps on the other corner.
While describing his frenetic 15-second sequence late in the first quarter, Turner also delivered a mantra for the last six games as the Bengals fell to 5-6.
"Those two plays, it was me not giving up on the play," Turner said.
The Browns also had their playoff hopes dealt a blow with a loss in Denver. We all know what Turner's Wolverines did to Ohio State's national title chances in Ann Arbor Saturday. In an ironic way, the Steelers' first 400-yard game since 2020 revealed a new wave of defensive players that should help the Bengals the rest of the decade.
Their first three picks in the draft stood up in what amounted to their first playoff game. Joining Turner was third-rounder Jordan Battle in his first NFL start and in a career-high 59 snaps he offered another high-volume game with eight tackles ten days after racking up 11 in Baltimore. Meanwhile, from the edge first-rounder Myles Murphy buzzed around Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett in his 22 snaps and had a sack to go with three tackles.
"It's not what we wanted," Battle said. "But I felt comfortable out there."
Turner, with his NFL scouting combine-best 4.27-second 40-yard dash, made the Steelers uneasy all day. It looked liked he had allowed a touchdown to Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson in a scoreless game as the first-quarter clock ticked under five minutes. On second-and-two-from the Bengals 15, Johnson got behind him and as he tucked the ball away for what seemed the score, Turner closed suddenly as Johnson fell out of the end zone and wrestled the ball out.
"I was just playing through his hands," Turner said. "Finish."
Then on the next snap, third-and-two, after defensive tackle Zach Carter and linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither stood up running back Jaylen Warren, Carter swatted out the ball late. With everyone else seemingly immobile thinking the play was dead, Turner picked up the ball and dashed 28 yards.
"I didn't see anything. I just saw the ball. That's all I saw. I didn't see anything else," Turner said. "Honestly, when I just see the ball, I'm going to get it. If they stop me, OK, but that's honestly how I see it. if I see the ball, I'm going to get it regardless. If they stop me and blow the whistle, OK."
But the only guy who blew the whistle on Turner was 6-0, 230-pound fullback Connor Heyward, who had the honor of tackling the combine's fastest man.
"He had the angle, so I couldn't keep running straight," Turner said. "I was trying to skinny him up when I hit the sideline, but he did a good job."
When the Bengals defense tries to do the good job against the AFC South-leading Jaguars next Monday night, they'll be focused on two major factors.
Pickett hit them with four passes of at least 20 yards, making it 17 such passes against them in the last three games. Much of the damage is on third down, where foes are an even 50 % the last two games (14-28), excluding Sunday's kneel-down.
"We've got to be better on third down," Battle said. "When Coach calls 'Man,' we have to play that. We want to be a man defense. You have to lock up on third down and get off the field."
And in the four AFC North losses, they've allowed an average of 174 rushing yards. Part of that is the offense converting 16 third downs in those games, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo worked so hard to reverse those numbers in the 2021 defensive overhaul, you know that is going to be a point of emphasis.
While the defense is trying to work through it before Monday Night Football in Jacksonville, they can hang their hats on kids like Turner and plays like the one he made to keep it a one-score game with eight minutes left. With Pittsburgh up, 10-7, Pickett had a third-and-six from the Bengals 16 when he tried to zip it to Johnson at the front left pylon.
Mana a mano. Man up. You vs. Me. Game on the line. Turner used that terrific closing speed and just when Jonson thought he had six, Turner reached and batted it away to force a field goal.
"I had the better position," Turner said. "He ran an out, I broke on it, drove on it. I just believed what the film told me throughout the week."
In the coming week the Bengals defense takes stock, they're believing more and more what the film is telling them about the kid with the Michigan letter jacket.